Caption: Global pop sensation, BTS, performing at the New York Times Square on New Year’s Eve. | Photo Credit: Reuters

K-Pop’s Struggle in the West

Despite having gained recognition and success worldwide, Korean artists still experience a glass ceiling due to the racism and discrimination rampant in the Western music industry. These artists are only acknowledged as successful when they accomplish extraordinary achievements, while others are not subjected to these standards.

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The Beginning of the Hallyu Wave

The rise and spread of Korean popular music, or K-Pop, started with the Hallyu wave which began more than a decade ago. With Korean artists like Rain, Super Junior (SJ), Wonder Girls, SNSD (Girl’s Generation), Big Bang and PSY, the Hallyu wave successfully took the world by storm. However, gaining long-term recognition was a whole different feat.  

While songs like “Sorry Sorry” (SJ), “Nobody” (Wonder Girls) and “Bang Bang Bang” (Big Bang) gained the attention of people outside of the K-Pop sphere, they were unable to evoke a real appreciation for the genre. 

Why? 

The general public in countries outside of South Korea was not open to music of a whole different language. Additionally, the K-Pop genre started to gain negative labels associated with “lip-syncing”, “plastic surgery” and “manufactured idols”. These labels created the stigma of K-Pop artists being fake.  

K-Pop Taking a Turn

In 2012, however, PSY took a leap in the positive direction by topping Billboard charts with his hit song “Gangnam Style”. The rapper was the first Korean artist to not only attend but also perform at the American Music Awards (AMAs) as well as the MTV Video Music Awards. 

But the song was used more as a “meme” as opposed to being genuinely appreciated because people were listening to the music without the knowledge of what the lyrics meant. This also resulted in PSY not being able to replicate his success in the Western music industry with his subsequent songs. 

However, the presence of Korean artists increased again years later when BTS gained worldwide recognition. 

BTS (also known as Bangtan Sonyeondan or Beyond The Scene) is a seven-member group from South Korea who made their debut in June 2013. Well-known for the members’ intense choreography during live performances, BTS started to receive more attention in the West in 2017 after snatching the “Top Social Artist” award at the Billboard Music Awards from seven-year winner Justin Bieber. 

The group continued to rise to stardom whilst breaking boundaries and records, together with their fans: the “ARMY”. From charting multiple times in the Billboard Hot 200 and making their American debut in the AMAs, the band steadily progressed with every release, even hitting the Billboard Hot 100. They were invited to perform at the Grammys and sold-out stadium and arena tours in the US and UK. They also brought in 2020 by performing at Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, where only the most successful artists are invited to perform, most being US artists.

The rise of BTS in the West has paved the way for other groups like Monsta X, Seventeen, Twice and BlackPink to shine. Many K-Pop artists have expressed their gratitude to BTS for opening the door to the Western industry. The pioneer of K-Pop, Seo Taiji, named BTS his successor, as “it is their era now”.    

BTS’ Struggles at the Top

But the fame alone has not stopped the stigma, insults and discrimination that K-Pop artists experience when they are in a foreign land. 

In a recent article by Weverse online magazine, the popular music critic Seo Seongdeok exposed the racism and prejudice that the artists experience as Asians and Koreans. The racism became more prominent when fellow Western celebrities publicly posted on social media that they were afraid of BTS attending the 2020 Grammys, for fear of the members spreading the coronavirus. Fans have also pointed out the discrimination the band faced: how BTS was used for its appearance and performance to draw a bigger audience for shows like the AMAs, but not given a significant nomination for its music. 

This was evident in the 2020 AMAs. Although BTS clinched the “Favorite Social Artist” and “Favorite Duo or Group – Pop/Rock” awards (for the second year in a row), its music was not given the recognition it deserved. Both BTS’ album Map Of The Soul: 7 and single “Dynamite” did not get nominated, despite being high-grossing and eligible for the awards. The excuse of “only English songs by Americans can be nominated” is invalid, as foreign artists like Justin Bieber and Harry Styles — from Canada and the United Kingdom — had been nominated and won awards at the event.

The racism in the music industry has never been a secret; Black Americans and other People of Colour (POC) in music often do not receive the recognition they deserve either. 

Acceptance by the West

The Western music industry has tried to prove that it is more accepting by inviting more Korean acts for interviews on national television, performances (such as Coachella) and other appearances. 

When it comes to rewarding their artistry, however, award shows continue the discrimination by creating separate award categories like “Top K-Pop Group”, instead of nominating the artists alongside other groups. British groups like One Direction and the Beatles are grouped with American groups like the Backstreet Boys and the Jonas Brothers, but K-Pop groups — which are from the same pop genre — hold no place beside them.  

This then raises the question: why is Western recognition (or validation) so important? 

With multiple channels to consume music, it is tough to define what song is “popular” internationally. 

While there are the iTunes and Spotify global and country-based charts, these charts do not include radio spins, music video views, physical sales and streaming data. The only chart that includes all of the above is Billboard, which only uses data from the US. Hence, to get on the chart, it is important for artists to be famous in the US. Those who chart on Billboard, be it in the “Hot 100” or “Hot 200”, gain recognition worldwide and can be labelled as “global stars”. This may not be ideal or representative of the international music industry, but it is the only gauge available in the industry as of now. 

It should be noted that Billboard has taken the first step to acknowledge non-US-based artists by introducing new charts, including the “Global 200 (Excluding US)”.  

Another world-renowned recognition that artists pursue is the Grammy Awards, which would instantly label the artists a “success” if they are nominated. The Grammys mainly only recognise American, European and Latin American artists, although they are also slowly widening their scope as well. 

In 2019, BTS was invited as presenters of the “Best R&B Album” category. This year, they performed as part of the collaboration stage with Lil Nas X for “Old Town Road”. For the 2021 Grammys, BTS’ hit single “Dynamite” has been nominated for the “Best Pop Duo/Group Performance”. While fans were disappointed that the album Map Of The Soul: 7 did not receive a nomination, they acknowledged the baby steps the Recording Academy has been taking.

English, A Known Obstacle 

Why is it so hard for K-pop to succeed in the West? 

Because its artists do not sing in English.

K-Pop groups do release English versions of their Korean songs or English songs to cater to the West. For example, Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” had an English version which was marketed overseas. More recently, Monsta X released a whole English album, All about Luv, which they promoted during their US tour. NCT also released English versions of their songs, on top of the Korean and Chinese versions.

Since releasing its English single “Dynamite”, BTS has topped the Billboard charts and broken multiple records, charting on the Billboard Hot 100 at number one for three weeks, number two for four weeks, maintaining its position in the top five for the first two months.

The release of songs in English makes a huge difference and garners more attention from the general public. It could be that the BTS ARMY and its US fan base have grown since BTS’ last release. However, charting multiple weeks, let alone at numbers one and two, was usually only possible for Western artists with a massive general public following, such as Ariana Grande and Beyonce.

BTS’ latest album, BE, released on Nov 20, 2020, put to test whether the public can see beyond the language and learn to appreciate music for its message.

As predicted by fans, the title track for BE, “Life Goes On”, received only four radio plays from American radios on its first day. “Dynamite”, on the other hand, had 905 spins on its first day. This shows the clear language discrimination, in particular towards Korean songs, since other non-English songs like “Despacito” played on US radios countless times. 

The Permanent Glass Ceiling

As the Hallyu wave gains more traction, more Korean artists will enter the Western music industry and experience racism, on top of the xenophobia. Despite their achievements, just like BTS, they will experience the glass ceiling in the industry. 

While the optimistic would say that there will be a day when the music of all languages is universally accepted and enjoyed, the reality is that non-English-speaking artists will always have to work ten times harder to even step into the globally-recognised industry. 

As BTS leader Kim Nam Joon, also known as RM, said: “Music transcends language”. If you look beyond the language and instead focus on the message and the type of positive influence the artist has on society, you will be introduced to so many more amazing artists. 

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